Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination

The Book: Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination, by Neal Gabler (Alfred A. Knopf, 2006).
Why You Should Care: A testament to what one man with a singular vision can create over the course of a lifetime.
Following two consecutive posts from my recent journey in the wilds of fiction, I return today to my comfort zone—non-fiction—and particularly to the wonderful world of biography. In doing so, I risk stepping on the toes of my fellow entreVIEW editor, Dan Tenenbaum. In addition to being a first-class counselor and advisor to entrepreneurs, Dan happens to have a thing about Walt Disney. Want proof? Check out his profile or his wardrobe, for that matter. It is a rare day that Dan is not sporting an item of clothing featuring one Disney character or another. This is a sartorial mannerism I personally much prefer to the overdone bow-tied lawyer affectation.
But, as Dan knows, he is not alone in his enthusiasm for all things Disney. I myself almost named Disney in my profile as the one person, living or dead, with whom I would like to dine, but at the last minute went with Winston Churchill or Franklin Roosevelt. (I must have been feeling especially embattled on that day.) At any given moment, it would be easy to change my mind to Disney instead. There’s just something about the world he created that is supremely reassuring and comfortable, and not just for children. My wife and I had one of our best vacations ever when we went to Disneyworld before the kids had arrived on the scene.
It turns out—no big revelation here—that Dan and I aren’t the only people who feel this way. Enter Neal Gabler, whose 2006 biography, Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination, is a definitive tour de force of all things Disney and why we love them so much. And not just us: Gabler quotes the New York Times, in eulogizing Disney following his death in 1966, as describing him as “probably the only man to have been praised by both the American Legion and the Soviet Union.”
But it was America and the American consciousness that Disney reshaped. His list of accomplishments is long: he essentially invented animation, he “reconceptualized the amusement park as a full imaginative experience,” and he created the first modern multimedia corporation. He was an entrepreneur, but Gabler tells us he was “a reluctant one.” He had a vision for creating a “perfect world that conforms to our wishes,” where “the fabricated [is] preferred over the authentic and the real world purged of its threats.” This, from the man who was, “along with Norman Rockwell, the leading avatar of small-town, flag-waving America.” These visions drove his achievements, not economic reward—although economic reward surely followed in spades.
This is a wonderful story—though, at some 630 pages, not so short—about a man whose life epitomizes the axiom, Do what you love and the money will follow.

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